The Golden Age of Imported TV


I was gratified recently that, while speaking with a learned and discerning friend, he said the same as I’ve been saying here for some time now, and in the very same words: This is the golden age of television.

Yes, again, the medium is also at the same time a cesspool of unmitigated crap. But that only makes the gold standard set by the shows of superior quality shine even more brightly.

The origins of excellence and originality in American television can be found in its first golden age during TV’s early years of the 1950s. But one must also never discount how imports from England and the BBC that were one of the early staples of public television kept the notion that TV can be a place for dramatic, comedic and informational greatness alive. And today British TV continues to be a source of fine shows and much viewing pleasure.

This was evident to me when The Hour wrapped up its second season a while back. The shorthand on the series is that it’s the British Mad Men, a natural yet reductive comparison. Sure, it similarly recreates the look, atmosphere and cultural context of the mid-1950s with uncanny accuracy. But The Hour is a far different animal.

One English critic did truthfully tag it as a slow starter. But its first season spun enough allure and intrigue to hook me in and whet my appetite for season two. And in its second season the sometimes seemingly loose and disparate threads of its first outing wove together into a tapestry of compelling drama, surprises and delights.

Even a minor example of character growth demonstrates that. In the first season TV news presenter Hector Madden’s wife Marnie, who suffers his glibness and indiscretions, seemed like the cliche of the English upper class wife. But in the second run she blossoms as a character with gravitas, strength and multi-dimensionality. (And I discovered as an interesting side note that she is played by Oona Castilla Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin.) In a parallel thread her husband travels a growth curve as well that brings them to a place of renewal.

The entire primary cast experiences a rich character development – something episodic TV can portray with richness. Too often average television shows leave their main figures in a static yet reliable place that I’m certain some viewers appreciate and find comforting. But when TV shines it can resemble real life as it portrays the natural human line of growth and change.

[Editor’s Note: As we went to press, it was reported that “The Hour” was canceled after two seasons.]

In the lead-up to last summer’s London Olympics the Beeb created Twenty Twelve, a sharp comedy that followed the trials and tribulations of a fictional “Olympic Deliverance Committee” with cunning wit. I’ve written often here about the excellence of its dramatic spy series MI-5. I was also captivated by Whitechapel (created for ITV but shown here on BBC America), a police procedural with plots driven by the recreation of legendary classic crimes, starting with Jack the Ripper (and starring Rupert Penry-Jones, who was also a lead actor on MI-5). As I write this I am collecting on my DVR episodes of Ripper Street, another procedural set in the years following the Ripper murders.

I also look forward to the stateside arrival of the second season of Law & Order: UK, which may well turn out to be my favorite permutation of the fertile American TV franchise. I have the first season of Copper, a police drama set in the Gangs of New York era and locale, saved on my DVR for a time to dive into it (and will likely report on it in my Populist Picks column here once I do). And I was gripped not long ago by the BBC classic State of Play from 2003.

Hence I enjoy that US/UK “special relationship” in television terms and imagine that I’ll be continuing to do so for some time to come. Much as I am enthralled with the TV excellence being created here, there will always be an England to help keep standards high.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2013

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